Did you know that you can grow your own quinoa?
Just don’t do what I did, which was to start it as summer temperatures were reaching 100°F! Let’s learn more about this high protein, ancient grain, so that you can add it to your foodscape.
What is quinoa?
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a member of the amaranth family, along with beets and spinach. Quinoa is grown for its high protein seeds. Unlike most cereal grains, quinoa is not a grass plant, so its seeds are classified as a pseudocereal. People started farming quinoa 4,000 years ago in the Peruvian Andes, but it has been a food staple for as long as 7,000 years. One of the things that makes quinoa so special is that it contains all eight essential amino acids used by our bodies to make a complete protein molecule, plus it is gluten-free, for those suffering celiac disease.
The quinoa plant
Quinoa is a self-pollinating dicot, which means its seeds split in half and its flowers have petals that are in multiples of four or five. Unlike many other plants, quinoa flowers are green. Quinoa plants have deep taproots that make them drought resistant. Its leaves are broad, with tiny hairs (trichomes), and lobed. Plants can grow from 18 inches tall to over six feet. The central stem may be green, purple, or red, depending on the variety. Quinoa seeds can be black, tan, white, pink, red, or purple, depending on the cultivar. All quinoa seeds are coated with saponins, which taste bitter. This protects developing seeds from birds and other seed eaters, but the coating needs to be rinsed off before cooking and eating your quinoa. [In parts of Africa, those saponins are collected and used as a laundry detergent!] While young quinoa leaves are edible, they do contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can cause respiratory and kidney problems. But you’d have to eat an awful lot of quinoa leaves to have a problem.
How to grow quinoa
Quinoa plants are pretty rugged. They can be grown from sea level all the way up to the highest mountain tops (13,000 ft.), just give them plenty of sunlight. You will want to select a variety that is suited to your microclimate and elevation. Quinoa grows best in loose, sandy soil, which we don’t have here in the Bay Area. This means you can either grow your quinoa in a raised bed, or you can incorporate a lot of aged compost into your quinoa bed before planting. This will provide nutrients and improve drainage. Do not try growing quinoa in containers - it needs more underground space than a container can provide. Quinoa prefers a soil pH of 6.0 to 8.5, so our alkaline soil isn’t a problem. Seeds should be planted 1/4 of an inch deep and watered very gently, to avoid washing seeds away before they get a chance to germinate.
Quinoa plants prefer temperatures from 25°F to 95°F. This means you can start growing your quinoa in the Bay Area in autumn. That way, your plants will be harvested long before our quinoa-killing summer heat kicks in! Quinoa plants take 90 to 120 days to mature, so plant accordingly. Freezing temperatures will sterilize quinoa pollen, so frost that occurs during flowering can be problematic. These plants grow very slowly during their first two or three weeks, so snipping off weeds at ground level is the best way to reduce competition without disturbing the soil. Depending on the variety, plants only need 10 to 39 inches of water during the growing season. In the Bay Area, in an average year, we receive 15 inches of rain, so some irrigation may be needed, but not a lot. Quinoa plants should not be watered once they start going to seed.
Quinoa pests and diseases
While quinoa seeds protect themselves with saponins, many birds will still feast on your crop. You can use netting to reduce losses. Other pests include flea beetles, caterpillars, aphids, armyworms, and the recently discovered quinoa plant bug (Melanotrichus sp.). Bacillus thuringiensis can be used to control caterpillars. According to a report from Perdue University, there are no pesticides cleared for use on quinoa. Quinoa is prone to several fungal diseases, which is why good drainage is so important. Damping off disease, downy mildews, fusarium wilt, seed rot, leaf spot, and brown stalk rot can all affect your quinoa plants.
You will know it is time to harvest your quinoa crop when the leaves turn yellow, red, or purple, and start to drop off. The difficult part about harvesting quinoa is separating the seed from the rest of the plant. Similar to harvesting stone pine nuts, this is a labor intense process. Start by snipping off as much non-seed containing plant material as possible, and allowing the seed head to dry completely. You will want to protect these seed heads from moisture, because seeds will begin to germinate within 24 hours of being exposed to water. You will know the seeds are completely dry when you cannot leave a dent in one with your fingernail. Once they are completely dry, you can gently rub the seed heads against a colander or strainer to knock the seeds loose.
Even if you don’t harvest your quinoa, adding this plant to your garden or foodscape can increase biodiversity and, hey, it’s a strikingly beautiful edible plant!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!